THE 13-year-old who was abused by Neil Wilson could not really have been any less “predatory”.
Dressed in her school uniform and blagging cigarettes from passers-by she was easy prey for any passing paedophile with a nose for vulnerability. If she was “sexually experienced” – and we only have the court’s word for that – it was only because she’d been targeted previously, by someone just as manipulative.
Wilson could not have been less taken advantage off. More than twice her age – and with a cache of child porn, he knew what he was doing when he bought her a pack and asked her back to his house. If, on subsequent occasions, she went willingly, it proves only that her self-esteem had been eroded by past experience.
Yet so entrenched is the practice of victim-blaming that a barrister was last week able to turn this scenario on its head. Viewed from Robert Colover’s twisted perspective, this girl was a voracious Lolita and Wilson a hapless man at the mercy of an under-age seducer. And in the Alice in Wonderland-world of the English justice system, that’s how Judge Nigel Peters saw it too, agreeing that the sex act in which Wilson engaged had been “forced” upon him before handing him a suspended sentence.
Of course, even if the girl had been wearing make-up and stilettos and hanging out at nightclubs she would still have been the victim; however superficially sophisticated they appear, 13 year-olds cannot consent to sex. But there’s something particularly tragic about the way children caught up in a cycle of neglect, truancy and abuse are deemed to be complicit in the offences carried out against them: the way the girls in Rochdale – who were plied with vodka then pimped out to a sex ring – were said to be “making a lifestyle choice”. The way this girl was said to have “egged” Wilson on.
You’d think maybe attitudes would have changed post-Savile; that society would have learned that no child “asks” to be abused. And sometimes it does seems as if there’s a glimmer of hope. The public outrage over this case was real, with most commentators in no doubt as to the unacceptability of the language used. Yet you don’t have to scratch far below the surface to see how common the view of girls as sirens is. After the Savile case, actor Bill Roache said: “There’s a fringe of people, particularly popstars, they have these groupies… they’re sexually active, sexually mature, they don’t ask for their birth certificate, they don’t know what age they may be. But they’re certainly not grooming them and exploiting them.” And there were plenty of people who excused teacher Jeremy Forrest’s sexual relationship with his 15-year-old pupil on the grounds they were “in love”, ignoring the power differential and breach of trust involved.
In courts, such attitudes seem particularly rife. It may be 20 years since Judge Ian Starforth Hill described the 8-year-old victim of attempted rape as “not entirely an angel herself”, but there has been no shortage of inappropriate comments in the intervening decades. Jailing a window cleaner for the rape of a 10-year-old girl in 2007, Judge Julian Hall said the victim had been dressed “provocatively”, while last year Judge David Farrell jailed two men who raped an 11-year-old girl for just 40 months after agreeing she “looked” about 14.
That’s one side of the story; the other is the way the victims of child abuse are treated giving evidence. After the Oxford case, girls who had been passed from paedophile to paedophile, were passed from cross-examining barrister to cross-examining barrister for renewed humiliation.
Though there must be better ways to handle such exchanges, the cross-examination of witnesses during a trial is at least fundamental for the dispensing of justice. The astonishing thing about this case, however, is that the offending comments were made by the prosecuting barrister after Wilson had already pled guilty. Although Colover was obliged to bring to the court’s attention any matters which might impact on the defendant, it seems unreasonable to think this should have included a subjective assessment of the girl’s behaviour, particularly given Wilson’s own advocate suggested he posed a risk to other children.
It is to be hoped the the furore over the latest comments will act as a catalyst for change; already Colover has been barred from sex cases while his conduct is investigated by the CPS and Judge Peters is also facing an inquiry. The Attorney General is reviewing Wilson’s sentence and, in future, child sex cases will be conducted by specially vetted judges, but it is impossible to tell how effective such measures will prove. In England, judges already have to be “ticketed” before they can preside over rape cases, but it is not clear how such tickets are awarded nor how often they are removed. By the time Judge Hall described the 10-year-old as having dressed “provocatively”, he had already suggested another child abuse victim could be cheered up by the purchase of a new bicycle.
In any case, these attitudes are just extreme reflections of those expressed more generally. Child protection campaigners and politicians may have railed against Colover, but human rights barrister Barbara Hewson tweeted that “it takes two to tango” and, though 3,000 people signed a petition calling for a CPS investigation into his remarks, in the comments section of the Daily Mail, plenty of people seemed to agree with him. Victim-blaming is a popular pastime; so long as it persists in society at large it will find its way into the court system. And so long as it finds its way into the court system, young girls who have been violated once will be violated again as they pursue justice. «